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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami (pub. 1994-95, Japan; 1997, Jay Rubin translation)
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Caution: spoilers!

So... Haruki Murakami. He's written a bunch of stuff, before and since this book, but this is the first thing I've read. I'd heard or read the author's name before, and I know most people think he's a genius. Maybe he is, I don't really know. Nor am I sure whether I'd specifically heard of this book before. I must have read at least one review of at least one of his books, but I can't imagine which book it was, or when I read it. But I suppose he's an author whose work I long thought I might vaguely like to someday read. And a friend of mine mentioned the author in an e-mail to me, probably sometime in late 2013 (though I don't think he mentioned any of Murakami's books, specifically). Around that time, I was looking through used books at a thrift store, and happened to see this, so I bought it. (It was probably ten cents.) And I started reading it in January of 2014; I finished in June, because I am a slow reader.

So, um... the novel consists of three parts (which were published individually in Japan). Book One is set in June to July 1984 (which is about ten years before the book was written, and thirty years before I read it and holy crap I can't believe this was written twenty years before I read it). The story is told from the perspective of a man named Toru Okada. He gets a strange phone call, which I don't even want to describe. But aside from that, his life is pretty mundane. He's been unemployed for a couple of months, but his wife, Kumiko, earns enough money that neither of them is worried about him finding a new job, for the immediate future. And... through Toru's thoughts, we learn a lot about his life, in both the present and the past. And um... Toru and Kumiko had a cat named Noboru Wataya, which they had named after Kumiko's brother. Which is a bit odd, because they liked the cat, but they both hated Noboru. Anyway, the cat had recently gone missing, so Toru would spend some time looking for it, in the closed-off alley behind their house, which ran past several other houses on their street. While looking for the cat, he met a 16-year-old girl named May Kasahara, and the two of them developed a sort of friendship. There's a vacant house across from May's, and she tells Toru that a family named Miyawaki used to live there. (He'll later learn from his uncle- from whom he and Kumiko rent their house- that the Miyawaki house has a long history of its various tenants killing themselves.)

A bit later, he meets a woman who calls herself Malta Kano (we never learn her real name). Apparently, Kumiko had contacted her to help locate the missing cat, though her methods are very strange, and it seems as if she's interested in problems that go beyond just the cat, problems of which the Okadas themselves aren't yet aware. And she's very vague about everything... it's all sort of mystical or symbolic (or holistic) or something. I don't know.

I should mention that there's a bird the Okadas have sometimes heard, that makes a sound like a spring being wound, so they call it the wind-up bird. And May Kasahara calls Toru "Mr. Wind-Up Bird." But no one's ever seen this bird, and most people have never even heard it. In a later part of the book, Toru will hear stories in which someone else had once heard such a bird. So I suppose it must have some significance, but if so, I never managed to figure out what it might have symbolized... if anything. I dunno, I wouldn't be shocked if it was just a completely random detail, because there's a great deal in this book that seems very random. Of course, a lot of things that seem random and unconnected may actually be connected, but I'm going to warn you right now, there are a great many mysteries in the book that I don't feel are ever really explained. The whole book is made up of things that are very mundane and things that are very surreal and incomprehensible, but there's a sort of seamlessness to how it all fits together, the way the book is written. If ever anyone, real or fictional, has "taken it all in stride," it's Toru Okada. Or at least, he never (or rarely) seems to react in any sort of overt way to all the oddness that starts to come into his life. Even if some of the things he does seem kind of odd, he does them mostly in a way that seems just as mundane as the things he did before all this started. (But nevertheless interesting, because he has a very believable and relatable inner monologue.)

Eventually, Toru meets a woman called Creta Kano, who is Malta's younger sister, and works with her in some capacity. She tells Toru about her own past, telling him far more concrete details than Malta ever told him about anything, but it's a very strange and disturbing story. And part of it involved Noboru Wataya (the man, not the cat). Toru also meets a man named Lt. Mamiya, who was distributing things bequeathed to various people from an old man the Okadas used to know, who had recently died. Mamiya tells Toru some stories about a war he'd served in, in the late 1930s. (He began the story in person, but later continued it in letters.) It was also a very disturbing story... some of it set in the 1940s, during World War II, I suppose.

Book Two is set in July to October 1984. Toru discovers that Kumiko has left him, disappearing without a trace, and no explanation of why. So he'll spend a fair part of the rest of the novel trying to find her, not that he actually does much to look for her, because there's not much he can do. But he learns that she's gone to stay with her brother, I guess. Which is hard for Toru to accept, given how much she hated him. But Noboru wants Toru to agree to divorce Kumiko, which he refuses to do unless he can talk to her himself. Also, the Miyawaki house has a well that's long since run dry. Toru begins spending some time just sitting at the bottom of the well, in the darkness, thinking about things. This is related to Lt. Mamiya's story, but I can't really explain it. I also need to say that throughout the novel, Toru occasionally has strange dreams, some of them sexual, some just weird and potentially dangerous. It all seems to be more than just dreams, but to be taking place in a hotel that apparently exists in a kind of alternate reality, which is somehow connected to our world, sort of metaphysically. This is one of the things that the novel never really explains, but it does seem like events in that world can have a vague sort of effect on things in the "real" world.

Eventually, Toru gets a letter from Kumiko, which explains some things about why she left, and why should could never come back. I don't want to reveal any of that, but Toru doesn't fully accept it, anyway. Soon after that, he gets a call from Malta Kano, who wondered if he might have noticed some kind of change in his body. He hadn't, but it isn't long before he does. There's a strange mark on his face, which will remain there for most of the remainder of the novel. And... lots of other things happen.

Book Three is set in October 1984 to December 1985. Noboru Wataya's uncle died. He was a politician, and Noboru would eventually fill his vacated position, and become very popular with the public. And for some reason, Toru looks into the possibility of buying the Miyawaki house. And he eventually meets a woman- actually someone he'd met briefly in book two- from whom he gets a job. It's some metaphysical sort of job, I guess, something she'd been doing herself for years. I can't really explain what exactly the job is, or anything, but it's weird. Anyway, she calls herself "Nutmeg Akasaka," and she has an adult son- her assistant- whom she calls "Cinnamon," who doesn't speak. (Like the Kanos, we never learn their real names.) They will eventually help him acquire the Miyawaki house, or rather the land on which it stands. The house is torn down and a new one built, with a wall around it to keep anyone from seeing anything that happens on the property. This is where Toru will do his new job. And a newspaper starts running articles about how mysterious all this is. And the cat finally comes home, and Toru renames it "Mackerel." And May Kasahara has left home and gotten a job somewhere, and sends Toru a number of letters. And Nutmeg tells Toru stories of things that happened during World War II, I guess. The stories involve her father, a veterinarian who worked at a zoo. But actually she didn't know if there was any truth to the stories, they were basically things she and Cinnamon had made up together, though there was some basis in reality. There were also a couple of chapters about a young boy who witnesses a mysterious event, but that all seemed to me to be very random, and I have no idea at all how it might be connected to anything else. (Wait, now that I think of it, the boy may have been Cinnamon, in a flashback to his childhood. But I couldn't say that with any certainty.)

Eventually, Toru meets a man named Ushikawa, who works for Noboru Wataya, and who later facilitates communication between Toru and Kumiko, using a computer in Cinnamon's office at the house where Toru now works. (It was kind of like a private chat room or something, but this being 1985, it was much more primitive than any form of online communication with which I'm familiar. There was such a thing as the internet, but of course this was almost a decade before the invention of the world wide web.) In any event, Toru disliked Ushikawa nearly as much as he did Noboru. And he still can't fully accept what Kumiko tells him, and doesn't want to give up on finding her and bringing her home.

And... a lot more things happened. (You might find it hard to believe, but I'm leaving out tons of details of the plot.) You know, all the various story threads from throughout the novel... just keep threading along. There is eventually a sort of resolution to it all, though some things seem to be left open-ended, questions left unanswered about all that has happened and all that may happen after this. Even so, I guess I like the ending. The whole book is just very... I don't know. Interesting, weird, compelling. I like the way it's written. And I like at least a couple of the characters (mainly Toru and May). And I guess I like the very strong sense that everything is connected, even if none of it really makes any kind of sense. So, whatever, I'm glad to have read it, and I hope to read more of Murakami's work, someday. And of course, I feel simultaneously like I've said far too much and like I'm forgetting important things I should be saying about the impressions I had throughout my reading of the book. Oh well, maybe I'll think of more to say, later, and maybe I won't.

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(Image taken from VintageBooks.com.)